Monday, September 29, 2008

Debussy: La Mer and Images

"I love music passionately. And because I love it I try to free it from barren traditions that stifle it."
--Claude Debussy

Today we'll listen for the first time to Debussy, one of the greatest rule-breakers in all of classical music.
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Los Angeles Philharmonic/Boston Symphony Orchestra
Claude Debussy (1862-1918)
La Mer; Images
Deutsche Grammophon, 1971/1980
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If you enjoy vivid musical imagery, this is a composer you should get to know. And if you enjoy salacious personal details, you'll want to read all about the controversies of Debussy's personal life (an example: not one, but two of his jilted lovers attempted suicide by shooting themselves after he left them. Both recovered).

Fairly or unfairly, Debussy has been labeled an "impressionist"--many listeners consider his music to be an auditory representation of the well-known painting movement. I'll offer my own impression: if we have to define Debussy's music this narrowly, it's more accurate to call him a Fauve--he's more Matisse than Monet in my view.

Whatever the word modern listeners use to describe him, Debussy wrote some of history's most vivid music, and today, in the 90th year since his death, he remains an enormous influence on classical music.

Unfortunately, I can't find a link on Amazon to the same Debussy CD I have in my collection. But for those of you interested in acquiring recordings of Debussy's music, here are links to two definitive collections of his complete orchestral works, as well as a third link to a lower-cost 2CD set of his key orchestral works:

Debussy: Complete Works for Orchestra
Debussy: Orchestral Music
Debussy: Orchestral Music

Please keep in mind, when you buy anything at Amazon via links on this blog, I will receive a small commission on your purchase, and there's no added cost to you. Thank you, readers, for your support and attention!

Listener Notes for La Mer:
1) In just the first movement alone there are so many overlapping melodies and unusual harmonies from such a wide variety of instruments that it's difficult (for me at least) to keep track of all the moving parts in this music. Perhaps, rather than trying too hard to over-analyze the music, it's better to just let this work wash over you (pun intended).

2) One of my favorite parts of this work starts at the 3:51 mark on this CD. Listen to the many layers of sound here: the flute and English horn (I think) play one part in unison, which blends seamlessly into a beautiful french horn melody. And then the strings splash enormous blotches of sound on top of the french horns. If that isn't vivid music, I don't know what is.

3) As a former trumpet player, I of course love the fact that the trumpets really get to let it rip at the climax of the first movement (from the 8:45 mark until the end).

4) In last 30 seconds of the second movement, listen for the very soft cymbal rolls in the background. They sound exactly like gentle waves.

Listener Notes for Images:
1) Be sure to pronounce this work "ee-MAZHH" or you'll incur the derision of every music snob within earshot.

2) When I hear the beautiful oboe solo in the first movement of Images (begins at 0:47), and compare it to the shrill and whiny oboe in the wind quintet of my Mozart/Dennis Brain CD, it again reminds me of a fundamental truth: if you are running a symphony and you have anything less than a spectacular oboe player, you are screwed.

3) I love the first movement of Iberia ("Par les rues et par les chemins") but I think Debussy broke one rule too many by scoring two clarinets to play the key theme in unison (first occurrence is at the 0:08 mark in track 5 of my CD, and then again at about the 0:50 mark of track 5). It's going to sound shrill and off-key when two musicians play this part, no matter how well-tuned they are. A similarly shrill clarinet unison occurs about a minute and a half into the third movement of Iberia ("Le matin d'un jour de fete").

4) For still more beautiful solo oboe playing, listen to the second movement of Iberia ("Les parfums de la nuit").

5) Funny, but I was wide awake and totally alert when I sat down to listen to Images. But by the end of the "Les parfums de la nuit" movement, I had drifted off to somnolence--my eyes were half closed and I suddenly felt like I really needed a nap. It was temporary; I was back to wide awake two minutes into the next movement.

6) I actually found a useful liner note accompanying this CD! Here's how the author, Paul Griffiths, describes the final movement of Images: "The music keeps skimming in other directions, like a mind unable to concentrate." Well said.





Saturday, September 27, 2008

Strauss and Mahler T-Shirts

Just a brief post today: Here's an awesome t-shirt design of Strauss and Mahler available for sale that I thought I'd share with my readers.

Available from the blog Soho the Dog in short and long-sleeved versions from $15.40. Proceeds go to the charity organization Christopher's Haven, which provides a housing for a nominal fee for pediatric cancer patients at the MassGeneral Hospital for Children.

(Also a tip of the hat to Chantal at Mahler Owes Me Ten Bucks for bringing this to my attention!)

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Mozart: Horn Concertos

Today's CD, a glorious recording of Mozart's Horn Concertos, gives me a chance to share a few thoughts on the miserable difficulties of playing the french horn.
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Dennis Brain and the Philharmonia Orchestra
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)

Mozart: Horn Concertos; Quintet, K.452
EMI Classics, 1954, 1955
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I may be a trumpet player, but I've fooled around with the french horn enough to appreciate how hard an instrument it can be to play. And the french horn is, at its core, an uncontrollable instrument. All it takes is a very, very tiny change in your embouchure (that's a fancy word for the shape and formation of your lips when they're up against the mouthpiece), and you'll play a completely different note from the one you expected to play.

And in Mozart's day, brass instruments (including the horn) were valveless. Thus you changed notes entirely by changing your embouchure-- and probably every third note was off-key. It helps explain why Mozart never wrote any good parts for the trumpet. He probably was too busy cringing at the thought of how it would sound.

One more point on the french horn before we get to the listener notes. French horn players, like most brass musicians, usually have power or finesse. Rarely do they possess both. The guy in your trumpet section who can nail those high notes usually looks pretty naked when it's time to play a soft air in the middle register. Likewise, the precise french horn player who rarely chips a note isn't the kind of horn player who can unload over an entire orchestra during the third movement of Beethoven's Fifth.

But there are occasional musicians out there who are hybrids--freaks of nature who have both power and control. And when it comes to the french horn, two players come to mind: Dennis Brain (who is the featured musician on today's CD), and Barry Tuckwell.

I once saw Barry Tuckwell do something live that I will never forget: he was appearing with the Syracuse Symphony in a conductor and performer role, and had just finished conducting (not playing) the first piece of the evening. He then went backstage, picked up his horn (cold), played no more than two or three warmup notes, and then walked out on stage and flawlessly played a difficult horn concerto. He made no mistakes and had not a single chipped note. It was pure finesse. And he never even had a chance to warm up.

Normal humans cannot do this.

Listener Notes for Mozart Horn Concertos featuring Dennis Brain:
1) If you think you're too busy to dedicate the time to listen to classical music, these horn concertos are perfect for you. Individual movements from these works tend to be very brief, ranging from four to six minutes in length. This is perfect music for listeners accustomed to 3-4 minute long popular music songs.

2) Mozart wrote these works for the horn player Joseph Leutgeb, who was his lifelong friend. Mozart wrote jokes, tasteless comments and insults to his friend in the original scores.

3) Concerto #1 (which ironically should be the last concerto if you were put them in the order in which they were written) was unfinished at the time of Mozart's death. The first movement was complete, but the Rondo movement had to be finished and arranged by one of Mozart's pupils, Franz Xaver Sussmayr. It's also unlikely that this work was originally intended to have just two movements. Mostly likely it would have also had a slow middle movement, just like the other concertos.

4) There's an ever so slight background hiss underneath the music, a relic of the analog source tape of this 1954-1955 recording. You'll be able to hear it with high quality headphones if you really crank up the volume, although I didn't find it to be a meaningful distraction.

5) And if you're snickering at the notion of "cranking up the volume" with Mozart, I don't take it personally. Go ahead and laugh.

6) At the 6:02 mark in the first movement of Concerto #3 (track 6 on this CD), you'll hear a cadenza, a passage where the orchestra drops out briefly, leaving the featured musician to play entirely by himself. Cadenzas were standard features of concertos written during Mozart's era--soloists would compose their own cadenzas in order to show off their skills with an instrument. Think of it an 18th century version of freestyling. With powdered wigs.

7) Another brief comment on the perfection of Dennis Brain. Everything he does on this CD is done flawlessly. He nails every high note, plays every run clearly, never chips a note and even plays trills cleanly.

8) Since Mozart only wrote four horn concertos with a combined playing time of under an hour, we get treated to a bonus work on this CD, Mozart's Quintet in E flat major. Unfortunately, it's a weirdly uneven performance, with Brain's usually perfection marred by mediocre playing by the woodwinds. While the oboe and clarinet often sound shrill and often off-key, the bassoonist is worse. He's completely in over his head. Listen, for example, at 3:40 in the first movement (track 12)--can you hear the bassoonist fumble all over those arpeggios? That's a community band-caliber performance, not something you should hear on a professionally recorded classical music CD.



Friday, September 19, 2008

Brahms: Symphony #4

I've dealt with Brahms' Fourth once before in a recording by the Weiner Philharmoniker under Carlos Kleiber. Today's post will cover an alternate recording of Brahms' Fourth, and it will complete our journey through the Philadelphia Orchestra's recording of Brahms' complete symphonies.

Recall how I said that the simple act of picking up that Klieber disc, dusting it off and playing it made this entire blog worthwhile? Well, today's CD has helped me get to know Brahms' Fourth even more intimately. It's one of the greatest classical music works I've ever heard, and I'm starting to think it might be my favorite symphony of all time.

And I never knew it existed until I started this blog and began systematically working through my collection of classical music CDs.
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Riccardo Muti and the Philadelphia Orchestra
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Complete Symphonies
Philips, 1989
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We've talked before about how comparing different recordings of the same symphony is not only a great pleasure, but it can deepen your knowledge and familiarity with the music. This is a more advanced level of classical music exploration, and I hope you take time to try it out for yourself. Feel free to share your experiences with other readers in the comments section of this blog!

Listener Notes for Brahms' Fourth Symphony:
1) Have you noticed how the greatest symphonies of the Romantic era (usually thought of as the 1800s) are based on extremely simple melodies? Obviously the best example is Beethoven's Fifth and the four note "dut-dut-dut-dahhhhh" theme. But Brahms' Fourth is no exception, with a simple opening four note theme (dah-dum, dah-dum) that is the foundation of the entire first movement. It just goes to show that the composers who thrived on complexity (Bach and perhaps Mozart come to mind immediately) didn't have a monopoly on great music.

2) After you've listened to the first movement of Brahms' Fourth, doesn't it feel like you've listened to an entire symphony? There's so much drama and emotion and such a climactic conclusion to this single movement that it feels like an entire symphony packed into one brief movement.

3) The second movement of this symphony one of the most elegant, modest and beautiful works of classical music I've ever heard. One measure I use to judge a truly great composition is whether it still evokes a strong emotional reaction in me despite minor mistakes or errors in the performance. This movement is so elegant that the music washes over me--it almost subverts analysis. I hear, but don't really notice, the occasional minor mistakes in this recording.

4) Typical Brahms: Supposedly, when Brahms sent the score of the Fourth Symphony off to Hans von Bulow for a first look, he was "extremely insecure" about the reaction he'd get from the famous conductor. At this point in his life, Brahms had become wealthy off of the success of his compositions. He was literally a living monument in Vienna. And he had just completed a monumental symphony that would be miles beyond the capabilities of all but a few of history's greatest composers. And yet, to co-opt a modern phrase, he probably thought it sucked. This is the man, remember, who burned more than 100 of his earliest compositions.

What I'm finally beginning to learn from the story of Brahms is this: it might be good to be humble, but never judge yourself too harshly. You only hurt yourself, and more importantly, you'll be wrong.





Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Brahms: Symphony #3

The Third is the most overlooked of Brahms' symphonies. In fact, The Essential Canon of Classical Music (which has become a veritable bible to me as I write this blog) gives the work only three bare sentences, saying that the Third "is infused with a genial lyricism," a phrase I view to be more condescending than insightful.
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Riccardo Muti and the Philadelphia Orchestra
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Complete Symphonies
Philips, 1989
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I consider this symphony simple and direct. It is a pearl. And it has one element that at the time was considered shocking in its originality: a quiet, peaceful ending during an era of loud and drawn-out symphonic climaxes. With the minor exception of an out of tune clarinetist (more on this below), this is an excellent recording.

Before we get to the listener notes, let's spend a brief moment on my favorite pet peeve: atrociously written liner notes. Here's a particularly inscrutable line from Bernard Jacobson, who wrote the text accompanying this CD:

"In the quest for organic unity the Third Symphony admittedly relies as pervasively as its companion works on intricate developments of motivic detail."

I suppose he could say that the themes are complex and detailed, but that just doesn't have quite the same pseudo-intellectual heft, does it?

Listener Notes for Brahms' Third Symphony:
1) This symphony starts out lightly, with none of the seriousness and gravitas of Brahms' First or Fourth Symphonies. Of course that means more emphasis on the woodwinds, which as we've seen before aren't exactly the forte of the Philadelphia Orchestra. And unfortunately it's the clarinet who's the worst offender in this recording. Listen to the clarinet at 0:59, 1:26-1:40 and 2:20 in the first movement and tell me you agree that this musician has a poor tone and is often out of tune.

2) In the beginning of the second movement, the clarinet soloist is again out of tune on many notes. I find it hard to believe the the Philly Orchestra has a clarinetist with such a tin ear. The first minute or so of this movement is painful--and I mean fingernails-on-a-chalkboard painful.

It's unfortunate, because when a clarinet is played really well, it sounds so mournful, so unutterably sad and beautiful, that there's just no instrument like it. But when played poorly or off-key, this unforgiving instrument can make even professionals sound like high school hacks. I'll attempt to stop complaining about this now.

3) Notice at 7:48 in the second movement, the trombones enter with a chord that is off key. I actually blame Brahms for errors like this--one of the liabilities of composing a symphony where you keep wind players sitting there not playing for periods of 10 minutes or more, is their instruments cool down. When the instrument cools down, the acoustics change, and this can especially be a problem with brass instruments, particularly long coiled brass instruments like the french horn and trombone. So let's give the trombones a bit of a break here and lay the blame on Brahms instead. Plus, it doesn't take the trombones long to get back in sync with each other. By the next entrance they make, at 8:20 and then again at 8:28, they nail their chords perfectly.

4) Despite the minor mistakes by our friends in the clarinet and trombone section, doesn't the second movement end beautifully?

5) The third movement is a perfect showcase for Philly's exceptionally expressive string section. When I listen to works like this heartrending third movement, it makes me feel like the luckiest man on the face of the earth, simply because I'm alive and able to experience music like this.

6) What's your take on how this symphony ends? I find myself struggling for a way to write about it. It's not really fair to say that it goes out with a whimper instead of a bang, nor is it fair to say it ends in an anti-climax. I guess it's just best to just listen it rather than to try to do it justice by describing it in words.



Sunday, September 7, 2008

Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and Ravel: Pictures at an Exhibition, Russian Easter Festival Orchestra and Night on Bald Mountain

Today we'll go over a disc that you could almost call a mix tape of Russian classical music favorites. If you're a classical music beginner looking to sample some truly memorable musical works, this is a great disc to buy or download.
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Charles Dutoit and the Orchestre Symphonique de Montreal
Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition No 1-10; Night on the Bare Mountain; Khovanshchina - Prelude; Rimsky-Korsakov: Russian Easter Festival Overture
Decca, 1987
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I generally hate to buy classical music CDs containing works by multiple composers (after all, which composer do you file it under?) but I gladly made an exception for this exceptional CD. I challenge you to find works more thrilling than Rimsky-Korsakov's Russian Easter Festival Orchestra. And one listen to Pictures at an Exhibition and you'll wish you were a brass player.

Before we get to the listener notes, I'll tell a brief story about a time when I performed Pictures at an Exhibition. Too many years ago, I was involved in a brass quintet made up mostly of the principal chairs of the Syracuse Symphony Youth Orchestra. We formed the group to have some fun and make a little extra money playing weddings and other performances in the community.

But at one of the weddings we played, the bride wanted to have the Promenade from Pictures at an Exhibition performed during the processional. Don't get me wrong: it's a beautiful work, and it sounds great when played by a brass quintet. But the problem is that the Promenade is in 5/4 time. The bride, along with everybody else in the bridal party, would have to do a stutter-step every fifth beat!

It turned out that the bridal party just walked up the aisle, and we were just being anal to worry about it. Oh, and the second trumpet player's digital watch alarm went off right in the middle of the ceremony, thereby proving the maxim that the things you worry about are never the things that actually go wrong. Fortunately, weddings are (usually) one-shot deals--I don't think we would have gotten repeat business out of this bride.

Let's get into the listener notes for this CD:

Listener Notes for Night on the Bare Mountain:
Whenever you see this work on a CD or in a concert program, it will typically be credited to Mussorgsky, but written with the words "Orch. by Rimsky-Korsakov" or "Arr. by Rimsky-Korsakov" written in small print below it. And like many of Mussorgsky's compositions, the history of the work is confusing. Mussorgsky composed a version of this work in 1867, and later incorporated the work as the third act in one of his operas, Mlada. Neither of these compositions saw the light of day during Mussorgsky's life.

After Mussorgsky's death in 1881, Rimsky-Korsakov arranged this work for orchestra, but he so heavily edited the composition that the work in many ways became entirely his own. It was this work that went on to become famous. Ironically, Rimsky-Korsakov has since come under criticism for his edits and so-called "corrections" of Mussorgsky's work, and classical music listeners are now increasingly going back to the original Mussorgsky composition. Of course, if R-K hadn't revised and modified this work, it would have never been heard in the first place. There's just no satisfying people sometimes.

1) Do you recognize the very first theme of this work? This theme was used in the Disney movie Fantasia, and you could argue that the theme was co-opted by the movie to such an extent that our culture now associates the work with the movie and practically forgets the original composition. Another example of this co-opting phenomenon: in the minds of most modern listeners Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries is associated either with Bugs Bunny ("Kill the Wabbit!") or the movie Apocalypse Now. Only classical music buffs know it from Wagner's own opera.

2) Listen for the brass, led by the trumpets, playing the theme at the 2:57 mark. This (along with several other examples in this piece) is a good example of triple-tonguing, an unfortunately named technique that I used regularly in my days as a former trumpet player. Maybe that's why I was so popular with the ladies back then.

3) Note also at 4:39 the french horns and the trombones repeat this triple-tonguing theme, but their articulation sounds far muddier (at 5:04 you can hear the trumpets play this theme again for a quick and clear contrast). That's why the trumpet player always gets the girl.

Listener Notes for Russian Easter Festival Overture:
We've listened to this work once before in this blog, so I won't spend a lot of time on it today. But as a quick reminder, this is one of R-K's best known works, and it's one of my personal favorites as well.

1) Listen at 0:57 for the cello playing the melody over a bevvy of flutes playing a surprisingly difficult part involving "double-tonguing" which is a variation of the triple tonguing done by the trumpets above. Yep, woodwind players, especially flute players, can double- and triple-tongue too.

2) At 5:23, the key theme ("Dahhh dut dut dahhh") is played by the entire orchestra. Crank up the volume all the way and listen to this part again, but pay special attention to the enormous foundation of the tubas and base strings. Is that gripping or what?

3) At the 12:23 mark, listen to the awesome yet controlled power of the low brass playing the key theme. Once again, this is a great time to really crank up the volume--and I'd suggest leaving it cranked up for the rest of the work. I'd love to hear the Montreal Symphony Orchestra live so I can see for myself exactly what kind of monsters they have for trombone and tuba players.

Listener notes for Pictures at an Exhibition:
This work is a musical representation of stroll through a gallery of artwork. And, as Mussorgsky fans have come to expect, there's also a confusing history behind this work. Mussorgsky originally wrote this in 1874 (in only about 20 days by the way) as a suite for piano, but the work was re-edited by his friend Rimsky-Korsakov after Mussorgsky's death. Fortunately, Mussorgsky's original manuscript survived, but it wasn't until 1931 that the original version became available so that pianists could perform an "as intended" version of the work.

I'll confuse you even more. The version we are listening to here is an orchestration of Mussorgsky's piano suite by Maurice Ravel, and Ravel was one of more than 20 composers that have arranged this work for orchestra (Ravel's orchestration is by far the most widely known however).

But set aside your confusion for now and just listen to this spectacular work, which features some of the most triumphant themes and some of the best brass parts you'll ever find in classical music.

1) The trumpet solo of the Promenade theme at the very beginning of this work has to be done right. You have to hit each note with confidence, use a round tone, and don't use so much damn vibrato. Inxay on the ibratovay. This guy simply uses way too much. The notes should be solid, not quavery. There's no reason to sound like you're playing with an advanced case of Parkinson's disease.

2) I'm sorry to harp a second time on vibrato, but at the 1:18 mark, the saxophone uses so much vibrato that he sounds like he ought to be in a 1930's era big band. One of my worst pet peeves about classical music is when otherwise well-trained musicians confuse a heavy vibrato with artistry.

3) You can see images of some of the artwork represented in this suite on Wikipedia.

4) The opening of the eighth movement ("The Catacombs") is an excellent showpiece for any brass section. If you want to see how your local symphony's brass players measure up, see how the principal trumpet handles the solo at the beginning of the work and then see how the brass section handles the eighth movement.

5) At the beginning of the final movement, when the entire brass section plays the Promenade theme, can you hear the trumpet playing the melody above it all? Notice how the trumpet player doesn't use any vibrato here. To me that's proof that his over-use of vibrato in his solo at the very beginning of this work is artistically inappropriate.